Puffin and whale watching in Husavik, Iceland

(Last Updated On: November 19, 2020)

Are you looking for the best whale watching in Iceland? Head north for a puffin and whale watching tour in Husavik! But first, keep reading to see what to expect and how to find and book the best tour for you.

whale tail with tour boat in background

Keep reading or jump ahead to the info you need most:

Watching puffins and whales on Iceland’s north coast

Where is the best whale watching in Iceland?

Why Husavik is the best place for whale watching

Plan your Husavik whale watching trip

How do I get to Husavik?
When is the best time for whale watching in Husavik?
Husavik whale watching tour companies
Choose the right tour for you
Support responsible whale watching and tourism
Booking your tour
The day of your tour

 

Watching puffins and whales on Iceland’s north coast

I took a puffin and whale watching tour in Husavik in June, 2018.

Our  tour with North Sailing was scheduled for 8:30 am. That’s not particularly early for Iceland, where the summer sun barely dips below the horizon. By the time I arrive at the harbor, the sun is already well above the horizon, if hidden by clouds.

harbor with traditional working boats

We’d allowed plenty of time to check in for our tour, so there is time to walk along the harbor and check out Husavik’s mix of boats. And it is a mix. There are working fishing boats, personal boats of all types, and variety of whale watching boats. There are even a few tall ships. Wouldn’t it be fun to go out on one of those!

Tall ship vs traditional fishing boat

I could have booked my whale watching tour on a tall ship. I wanted to.

And now, seeing them in the harbor, it’s hard not to question my decision to book a tour on motorized former fishing boat instead.

town with tall ships in the harbor

Still, I’m enthralled by the idea of watching whales leap while gliding along under sail.

But I’ve sailed on tall ships before and I’ve gone whale watching more than once as well. Those experiences left me with rather low (or maybe just realistic) expectations for whale watching from a vessel designed for sailing. Even under engine power, it’s just not as efficient as a boat designed for motoring. Don’t get me wrong, being on a tall ship is lots of fun and you’ll likely see whales. It’s just not the most practical option for observing, let alone photographing, wildlife.

So, instead of traveling with the wind on a tall ship, I’ll be spending the morning on the Sæborg, a motorized oak fishing boat repurposed for whale watching.

wooden boat at a dock

Not that Sæborg isn’t attractive in its own way. These oak boats have long been used by Icelandic fisherman, and their practical blend of form and function has its own beauty. And, like the schooners, the Sæborg was lovingly restored.

But, most importantly, as a whale watching boat, Sæborg offers advantages over those showy schooners.

While a schooner is lovely for a sightseeing sail, a motorized fishing boat offers additional speed and flexibility to get to wherever the whales may be on any given day. Moving around on deck is also easier, with more options for getting a good view without dodging rigging or other equipment. And then there’s the fact that I’m susceptible to sea sickness, so a motorized boat that with more stability is a better bet should seas turn rough.

(All of which were good assumptions, based on my friend Rachel’s whale watching tour on a schooner on a not very pleasant day.)

But let’s be honest. Puffins made me book a tour on a former fishing boat. I would have booked a tour on any boat if it promised puffin sightings. North Sailing only offers its puffins and whales tour on oak fishing boats, so that’s what I booked. After all, I want to see puffins as much as I want to see whales.

On board the Sæborg

Whale watchers are always warned to dress more warmly than seems necessary, as it is colder on the water beyond the harbor. But we were also issued a pair of well insulated overalls and a bright red Arctic expedition-worthy jacket. These extra layers would us stay warm and dry out in the bay, although I suspect the real purpose is to make it easy to spot anyone that somehow manages to go overboard.

passengers in foul weather gear on a boat

At just over 60 feet long and 15 feet across, Sæborg is a mid-sized member of Husavik’s fleet of wooden whale watching tour boats. North Sailing’s own fleet includes both larger and smaller motor boats and schooners. She can carry up to 70 passengers.

I have no idea how many passengers are on our tour, but I am quite sure it’s not 70. It’s about the right number though, enough that North Sailing should be able to stay in business, but not enough to feel crowded. It seems that, with just a bit of jostling, everyone can stand along the rail in the large open bow if they want. But there is also an open deck above the captain’s small cabin (ideal for spotting whales in the distance) and plenty of space in the stern (which offers some protection from the wind).

The bow has a couple of benches in the middle, but I am sure I will spend most of my time standing in the bow looking for birds and whales.

The crew includes a very knowledgeable South American naturalist to explain what we are seeing, spot wildlife (everyone helps spot wildlife), and answer questions. But, in reality, all of the crew was knowledgeable and very familiar with the area and its wildlife.

In the shadow of Puffin Island

My husband warned me not to get too excited about Puffin (Lundey) Island. After all, it’s a nesting area, so we won’t be going ashore, nor are we likely to get really close to the island. (This is not the Galapagos, where you go ashore and try not to trip over birds sitting on the trail!) And puffins are small birds.

All of which I knew.

Even so, viewing birds on the island is harder than I anticipated.

island with birds

We get close enough to see the entire island seems covered with puffins and other birds. But we don’t actually circle the island and, from where we float, it is deeply shaded as the sun begins to break through the clouds on the opposite side of the island. That makes both the birds on land and in the water right around it very hard to see and impossible to photograph.

Of course, puffins are small enough that it can be hard to get a good look at them even from the deck of a relatively small boat like the Sæborg. But it is amazing to see thousands of them all around, both on the water and in the air.

puffins in flight

And plenty are close enough to easily spy on, though binoculars or a telephoto lens helps.

puffin on the water

Because there are so many puffins here, we watch a lot of them take off and land on the sea. This is highly entertaining, as they do not easily make the transition between sky and sea.

puffin taking flight

Not that we only see puffins. There are many other birds – gulls, terns, murres, fulmars, ducks, and more.

seabird taking flight

On the lookout for whales

After floating amid the puffins, we head in the opposite direction in search of whales in Skjalfandi (Skjálfandi) Bay.

scenery from the sea

Husavik whale watching tours regularly spot humpback and minke whales, as well as white-beaked dolphins and harbor porpoises. Blue whales, the largest whales on the planet, are also regular visitors to Skjalfandi Bay, but don’t seem to make themselves visible to whale watchers as often. Lucky visitors might also see orcas, northern bottlenose, pilot, sei, sperm, and fin whales.

We see a handful of whales near our boat, and can see many more breaching humpbacks traveling away from us in the distance. But we have plenty of time to watch those nearest us, which include a mix of humpback, minke, and fin whales.

whale tail above water

(That’s a humpback whale sliding back out of sight.)

There’s never enough time for whale watching, but tours only stay out for so long. Happily, as we turn toward Husavik, a few dolphins or porpoises join us momentarily.

Of course, I would have liked to see even more whales and a lot more breaching. Instead of dramatically leaping from the water, the whales we saw near the boat came up for air and then skimmed along the surface for a moment or two before disappearing again, sometimes with a final flip of their tail and sometimes not. (Neither minke or fin whales usually show their tails when diving, so all of the whales that let us see their flukes were likely humpbacks.)

However, even if we hadn’t seen any whales at all, the scenery would have made the trip worthwhile. Skjalfandi Bay is lovely, with towering mountains, waterfalls, and rocky outcrops festooned with roosting sea birds.

coastal scenery

coastal scenery

rock with sea birds

Where is the best whale watching in Iceland?

Although it seems there should be great whale watching all around Iceland, regularly scheduled tours are generally available only in an area that runs roughly from the southwestern coast near Reykjavik, north along the west coast, and then east along the northern coast to Husavik.

The greatest number of tours are based in Reykjavik and Husavik or Akureyri in the north. However, if you are willing to venture a little farther afield, you can find tours on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, in the Westfjords, and at a couple other spots.

Some tours operate year-round. However, aside from those based in Reykjavik, most are seasonal.

And “best whale watching” means?

I identified Husavik as offering the “best whale watching in Iceland” based on the number and variety of whales you are might see, how likely you are to see them, and the range of tour options available. The best spot might be different if you can only visit Iceland at a certain time of year or have your heart set on seeing a specific type of whale.

For example, whale watching options are limited on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. However, Iceland’s best winter and spring whale watching is probably found here because the odds of seeing orcas (killer whales) and sperm whales are much higher than elsewhere.

Of course, if you are only in Iceland for a short time, it’s best to do your whale watching right around Reykjavik. During summer you’ll have a good chance of seeing many of the same whales you would see in Husavik, as well as puffins. While there are fewer whales here in the winter, there are some. And there are other attractions. For example, North Sailing’s silent northern lights sail sounds magical with or without whales.

However, if you are traveling Iceland’s Ring Road, Husavik is the best place to go whale watching.

Why Husavik is the best place for whale watching in Iceland

Of all the places to go whale watching in Iceland, Husavik offers the best combination of lots of whales, of lots of kinds of whales, and a high likelihood of actually seeing some of them. It also has a variety of tour options, lots of birds, a pleasant downtown with a few things to do, and a relatively convenient location just off the Ring Road. If that isn’t enough, a number of other must-see stops are located nearby. All of these make Husavik the best place for whale watching in Iceland and an obvious addition to any Ring Road itinerary.


Plan your Husavik whale watching trip

Located on the northern coast of Iceland, Husavik (Húsavík) a pleasant little town that offers the some of the very best whale watching in Iceland.

How do I get to Husavik?

While I’m always up for a road trip, it is possible to reach Husavik from Reykjavik by bus and air, as well as by automobile.


When is the best time for whale watching in Husavik?

In Husavik, whale watching season traditionally runs between May and September. However, in recent years April and October have also been good. You are almost guaranteed to see a whale of some kind during the summer months, but some species are usually found earlier or later in the season.

There are no whale watching tours in Husavik during winter. (Reykjavik is the best alternative for winter whale watching.)

North Sailing offers northern lights trips in December and again in early spring, based on demand and weather.

There is no best time of day for whale watching

While I prefer morning or evening whale watching tours, there really isn’t any time of day when whales are more likely to be active.

However, if you take North Sailing’s Puffin and Whales tour, be aware that morning light on Puffin Island is terrible. That’s because you don’t actually circle the island (at least, we didn’t), forcing you to look east toward the rising sun – which puts both nesting sites on the island and birds in the water around it in deep shade. You can see the birds, but photographing them is pretty much impossible no matter how good your gear is. If you really want to see and photographs birds at their nests, do this trip in the afternoon.

On the other hand, morning brought gorgeous light to the mountains around Skjalfandi Bay. But then, there are mountains in several directions, so any time of day should be lovely if there is some sun.

Husavik whale watching tour companies

Whale watching tours are offered by several companies in Husavik. Private tours, fishing tours, and a variety of combination tours are also available from all of them.


Choose the right tour for you

Almost every whale watching tour out of Husavik (especially during summer) will see a whale and at least a few porpoises or dolphins. So, don’t waste a lot of time comparing each company’s sighting rate. (Which don’t tell you much or differ significantly anyway.) Whether or not you see a whale will depend largely on the time of year you visit, not the tour company you choose.

And keep in mind that “seeing” a whale usually means seeing its back as it skims along the water and, sometimes, a flip of its tail as it dives. Even when very close to your boat, you may not see a lot of the whale itself. While whales do breach, they don’t often go flying up into the air. It happens, but more often they just break the water’s surface.

whale watching boat and whale

Fortunately for both researchers and whale watchers, humpback whales (and there are a lot of humpbacks in Skjalfandi Bay) usually flip their uniquely patterned tails up into the air as they dive.

So, given your likelihood of seeing a whale is about the same with any tour company, how do you choose the best whale watching tour for you?


Support responsible whale watching

Iceland doesn’t have a lot of regulations in place when it comes to whale watching. That’s probably not surprising since it’s a country with a long history of whaling. (While whaling may finally be coming to an end in Iceland as it becomes an increasingly unprofitable, both whale and puffin are found on tourist menus throughout the country. Please don’t eat them for dinner!) But even if it isn’t required, following responsible whale watching practices is important.

The Icelandic Whale Watching Association (IceWhale) promotes whale watching, research, and conservation. Their Code of Conduct promotes responsible whale watching that minimizes stress on these magnificent animals.

For the most part you don’t have to think too much about this if you book a tour in Husavik. All four whale watching tour companies claim to follow IceWhale’s code of conduct. And, with the exception of Husavik Adventures, all are members of IceWhale itself.

North Sailing seems particularly engaged when it comes to sustainability, responsible tourism, heritage travel, and responsible whale watching.

Gentle Giants’ association with a range of responsible tourism and whale watching groups also seems to indicate a sincere commitment – even as photos on their website tell a different story. (Please do NOT pet the whales.)

On the other hand, Husavik Adventures claims to operate in line with IceWhale’s code of conduct, but without being a member or (apparently) participating or engaging in other responsible tourism, whale watching, or conservation activities and organizations. If you book with them, do a little research on responsible whale watching to educate yourself. Then, when you board, ask how they avoid disturbing the whales and support marine mammal conservation. That puts them on notice: You expect them to operate responsibly.

Responsible tourism is about more than whales

Whales face a whole range of threats. However, that’s true of Iceland’s environment overall. To promote responsible tourism in Iceland, visitors are asked to take the Iceland Pledge. While specifically aimed at problems faced by Iceland, they are a good guide for travelers in anywhere.

Booking your tour

Here are a few tips for booking your tour, including costs, cancellation and refund policies, and more.


The day of your tour

No matter which whale watching tour you book, they will do everything they can to make your tour a success. But there are a few things you can do to increase the odds of having a great tour.

 

whale with boat with text "Husavik Iceland whale and puffin tours"

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